Tetsubin: The Cast Iron Teapot

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Surfing the web recently, I found myself stumbling across a cast iron tea set. Reminiscent of a time long ago, this was an item out of the ordinary and its beautiful craftmanship had caught my attention. Being transported into an ancient Eastern era of Samurai and swords, I was almost immediately sold. Staring at the screen in awe, it wasn’t long before the desire to examine had set in. I had to review this item and perhaps even dedicate an article to it. Without realizing, my interest in the tea set had slowly been awakening a hidden passion that lay buried deep inside of me and as planned that night, I set off the next day with the intent to compare expectations to reality. Finding a tea merchant nearby, I spent the entire morning reviewing tea sets (glass and cast iron) and tasting different types of teas. Not long into the session I came to realize that in order to truly appreciate the cast iron tea set, I would first have to learn about the product for which it is used. I decided to write a review based on the same logic and herewith only highlight the basics.

Classification

As a starting point, a distinction first has to be made between ‘Tea’ and ‘Herbal Tea’. All ‘teas’ come from the same source- the Camellia Sinesis plant. In contrast ‘Herbal Teas’ come from an intricate blend of various herbs and fruits. Herbal teas are also caffeine free with some connoisseurs not considering them as ‘real tea’. Factors such as growing conditions, geography and processing influence the final product.

‘Real’ Tea

‘Real’ Tea can be further classified into 5 basic categories, most of which are named after their colour.

Black tea

The standard tea found in supermarkets black tea is the most common and widespread tea available. High in caffeine content, black tea is derived from allowing the tea leaves to fully oxidize during its processing. The result of this process gives black tea its characteristic dark brown to black colouring and its distinct flavoring.

Green Tea

Recently trending amongst weight loss junkies and anti-ageing ambassadors, green tea has become a popular past time beverage. The leaves are not allowed to reach full oxidation. This is achieved by first allowing the leaves to wither up to a certain point before heating up very rapidly to reduce moisture content. Green teas are low in caffeine and are more subtle in flavour with mild undertones that are treasured by connoisseurs.

White Tea

Appreciated for their subtlety, complexity, and natural sweetness white teas are by far the most delicate. Hand processed using only the youngest shoots of the plant, white teas are not allowed to oxidize. Caffeine content is determined by brewing, and should be brewed at low temperatures with a shorter steeping time. When steeping at a higher temperature for a longer period of time, a higher content of caffeine is extracted.

Oolong Tea

As with green tea, only partial oxidation is allowed. A taste not as distinctive as black teas while also not as subtle as green teas, Oolong tea is characterized by its extremely fragrant and intriguing undertones. As with its processing, caffeine content ranges between that of green and black tea.

Pu’ehr tea

The hardest and most time consuming to produce, Pu’ehr tea undergoes a process similar to green tea. However, before it is allowed to dry, it is aged through the process of fermentation. Fermentation is the correct term to be used here, though different to the fermentation that produces alcohol. The aging process lasts anywhere from a few months to a few years, dependent on the type of Pu’ehr being processed. Highly prized for their earthy, woodsy and naturally smooth tastes Pu’ehr tea is considered to be ‘living-teas’ and come at quite a price tag.

The tea set for you…

Tea sets come in a variety of shapes and sizes, often making choosing very confusing. Coupled with a moderate to high price tag, room for error is significantly reduced. While I cannot advise on which to choose, I can perhaps help by encouraging an informed decision. The most popular tea sets at present range between glass and cast iron. I got to test out both with a specific focus on the cast iron models.

A ‘Cast Iron’ review

With a range of colours to choose from black seems to be the most popular. This could be due to its remarkable resemblance to the tea pots used in ancient times. As we all know, with aged items (or even replicas) comes the price of antiquity and the cast iron tea set is no different. With a price tag 5 times that of glass tea sets, a decision to purchase requires much thought. Falling in love with its craftsmanship, I was immediately sold.

Durability vs Aesthetics

Strong, sturdy and rather heavy this teapot would, without doubt, withstand the sands of time. Not short of being naturally attractive; on the contrary, even more appealing are the markings that each one comes with. Aesthetically pleasing it makes a beautiful ornament to display at work or home.

Functionality

With a ceramic coated interior, the claim by many tea experts is that the tea made in a cast iron teapot not only tastes better, but also remains hot for longer. This is due to the heat retention properties of metal in comparison to other materials. Not a false statement, caution need be exercised when pouring. Most cast iron tea pots come with an inner metal basket called an ‘infuser’. Its primary purpose is to hold the tea while steeping. While most infuses are tightly woven, some material does manage to filter through, though minimal at the least.

Cleaning

An aspect I did not quite enjoy. The cast iron teapot may only be rinsed with water. Dishwashing liquid and abrasive substances are not be used when cleaning as it erodes the ceramic material interior coating over time. What I found even more frustrating was that its tinier construct makes it challenging to clean for those with larger hands. Lastly, rust tends to set into crevices where drying out is difficult. However, not much of a deterrent as removal is easy by means of a simple toothbrush.

Overall (Glass vs Cast iron)

A glass tea set with a burner

Perhaps attributable to my inexperience, a noticeable difference in taste could not be detected. Shifting focus to heat retention, the cast iron teapot retains heat for a longer period of time. However most glass tea sets come with a ‘burner’ which when used, outshines the length of time that the cast iron pot retains its heat for. In terms of cleaning, the glass tea set is easier to clean as liquid soap may be used without discretion.

 

Conclusion

If aesthetics is what you seek, the cast iron tea set is the item for you.

However, if functionality is what you are after, glass tea sets are a better choice.

Should price be the deciding factor, glass tea sets are much cheaper whilst cast iron sets sell at quite a price.

As for myself; I left the store with a cast iron tea set. The aesthetically pleasing design qualified for a spot alongside my most prized possessions of gizmos, safely secured in the confines of my display unit.

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